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Episode 12: Engineering a Martial Art

As I see it, the best martial arts treat conflict as an engineering problem. Rather than considering absolutes, it measures ratios. The interactions can be measured in terms of mental and physical stress, strain, elasticity, plasticity, kinetic energy, and momentum. Tai chi, in particular, seems to have been developed with this mindset. Understanding this perspective can be very useful.


The profound success of tai chi, when it works, is due to the fact that someone, somewhere along the way, figured out what martial arts are all about about, and boiled at all down to core principles, and figured out the quality that must be achieved in order to have reliable success. Of course, we know about the taiji concept of yin and yang – the fundamental polarity which defines the phenomenal universe.  But in a more practical martial art context, it comes down to a thing that so many tai chi students think they understand, but don’t. It is a thing that is so very crucially important to all martial arts that hardly anybody talks about it. 

What internal martial arts seem to do, in my observation, is treat conflict as an engineering problem. While external martial artists argue about whether the glass is half full or half empty, internal stylists see the glass as being twice as big as it needs to be. 

Beginners tend to see fighting in terms of absolutes. But as we improve, we learn that it is actually about ratios. We can manage stress with less strain if we understand the collective elastic modulus of the body and mind.

Now, I am not an engineer. My formal education is limited to the Canadian public school system. So, you can expect me to mix physics with metaphor in a way that will make keyboard warriors twitch, and make science educators roll their eyes. So bear with me. Like any good martial art student, I invite you assume the responsibility for finding the true understanding that is buried in my steaming pile of ignorance. 

Okay. Here I go. 

For this video, I want to start by dispensing with some Chinese words like qi, peng, and Lü. 

Qi has too many meanings to be useful.    

I try not to talk about qi because it means too many things to too many people. Chinese speakers get confused by it. So, you can imagine how confusing it gets in translation. Qi has been used to refer to air, breath, gas, flatulence, electricity, fascia, characteristics of  blood, lymph proprioception, and the inherent qualities of all manner of things. A rock has rock qi. A tree has tree qi. A human has human qi. A dead thing has dead qi. So, I try to find another word for it whenever possible. When someone asks me what “qi” is, I am tempted to reply, “Qi is a bugger of a word. Get it away from me.” But I do sometimes say “qi” when I am talking about the electrical feeling that courses through the fourteen vessels when I’m doing daoist neigong. It feels to me like electrical wires conducting electricity through the acupuncture channels. I can feel the points, and have the sensation of it  defining the channels almost exactly like an acupuncture text book. But that is anecdotal. It is not a scientific definition. We do not need to talk about it here, especially when there is much more precise terminology available to us in English. 

(I also sometimes say “qi” when I’m with a group getting our picture taken. )

Another couple of words that I will not be talking about today, although they are relelvant to today’s topic, are 掤 péng  (and  Lǚ)

Peng is the most important concept in martial arts. The word itself is specific to tai chi. But it is understood, in some form or another, by advanced martial artists of all styles. 

It is not very well understood by beginners, however, for a few very good reasons. 

• Beginners are too preoccupied with the development of techniques and skills to be bothered with anything as crucially important as the fundamental nature of martial arts.

• Peng is not simply a combination of techniques. It is also not a simple quality. It is, in fact, a amalgamation of different qualities. It cannot be properly explained without including a group of important principles of physics, engineering, psychology and strategy. 

• The terminology used to describe it seems to be specifically designed to confuse people. 

• The word itself is not historically found in many dictionaries, and is often confused with homophones like peng 棚, peng 倗, or peng 堋. 

• When I introduce Peng and Lu to beginners, I sometimes say that Peng is like water supporting a log, and Lu is the ease with which the log can be made to drift or roll over. 

• When tai chi teachers talk about peng, they seem to do it in such a way that makes students want to accept the simplest explanation and be done with it. They attach themselves to their first understanding of it and resist exploring it more deeply themselves. Sometimes, teachers might be hiding the fact that they don’t really understand it. But it could also be their way of keeping the knowledge secret from those who don’t have the personality or intelligence to look deeper, or who lack the capability to see past their preconceptions. It is like a test to see who can recognize the Dunning-Kruger effect in themselves.

You see, by now, many people will have already stopped watching this video. So, I can safely continue explaining to those of you who remain. Now that the riff-raff have tuned out. 😉 

Okay. Let’s leave those words alone for awhile, and see if we can engineer a martial art from scratch. Shall we?

Let’s try thinking of self defence in the broadest terms as the management of stress, strain, plasticity, and elasticity. 

If you remember from science class, “stress” is all the stuff that happens, and strain is the effect that it has. 

In most places in Canada, the temperature usually gets down to -40° or lower at least once or twice per year, and sometimes -60°. Don’t ask if that is Fahrenheit or Celsius. At -40°, they both agree that cold is cold. 

The cold weather is the stress. How cold it make you is the strain. How much you can adjust to being cold is your plasticity (Most humans don’t do well outside of their optimal body temperature). How much you can recover from hypothermia without losing ears, fingers, toes or organ function… that is your elasticity.  

If you stay indoors or wear warm clothing, that reduces the stress. 

If you condition yourself against the cold, that reduces the strain. For example, if you were to move from Cuba to the arctic in October, you might complain about -20° weather. But in November, the temperature drops to -50° and you begin to long for -20°. By March, -20° is “chopping wood in a t-shirt and shorts weather.” The -20° is still the same stress. But it no longer causes you strain because you have learned what warm-blooded really means. 

Anther example: If someone nags you all the time, that can be stressful. If you wear earplugs, that may reduce the stress, temporarily. But learning to listen and engage wisely, that can reduce the strain.  Yes, Dear.

If someone punches you in the stomach, that is stress. Getting the wind knocked out of you by that punch, that is strain. Deflecting or dodging the punch reduces the stress. Developing iron body and abs of steel, that reduces the strain.   

If someone applies O uchi gari, that is stress. You falling down, that is strain. If you move your leg, that reduces the stress, and you don’t fall down, so you don’t experience the strain. If they follow up with O soto gari, (more stress) and slam you to the ground, then you experience strain. 

But then you do a perfect breakfall and roll back to your feet, showing that you can tolerate that much strain, that is plasticity. The force had and effect on you, displacing your body, changing its shape, and disrupting your balance. But you adapted and reorganized yourself as if nothing had happened. Plasticity is your ability to reorganize in response to a changing situation.

If the opponent does O uchi gari and, as you fall, they land their knee in your groin, and their head in your nose…well, that is different kinds of stress and you might not be able to tolerate that much stress or adapt to the strain as quickly.   

If someone pushes you, that is stress. If you get moved off balance and fall down or stumble into a fist, that is strain. If you get moved and you are fine with that. That is plasticity. 

If someone pushes you, and you do not move, or bend, or bruise, or break, then there is little or no strain.  That means that there is high ratio of stress to strain. The push is powerful, but it doesn’t affect you. In the engineering metaphor, you will have displayed a ”high modulus of elasticity.” 

If someone applies an s-bend lock to your wrist, that is stress. If you feel pain, and/or are driven to your knees, that is strain. If the pain doesn’t bother you, or being driven to you knees somehow works for you, that is plasticity. If you neutralize the lock by moving at right angles to the pressure, then that reduces the stress. If you re-direct the forces through your one body in a a way that eliminates your pain and pliability, that reduces the strain, and allows you to use your opponent’s force against them.  

A martial art must consider 

Stress: the force you encounter. 

Strain: the effect that the force has on you. 

Plasticity: your ability to reorganize after that effect. 

Elasticity: the amount of force you can resist and recover from.

The relationships between different types of Elastic modulus: This is where the art gets tricky. Tai chi tries to isolate the linear qualities defined by Young’s modulus while minimizing the shear modulus, and compensating for the way that bulk can complicate non-linear relationships. Fortunately, by relaxing the body and calming the mind, and by allowing the point of contact to change, and by engaging our internal Heisenberg compensators, we can allow for the fact that Young’s modulus only applies to limited forces and static loads, and make the principle functional in a changing, kinetic exchange, like a person throwing combinations of punches, kicks, pushes, traps, lock, throws, and insults. 

So, in engineering a martial art, you will want to be able to do the following things:

  1. modify the amount of stress that is applied. (This doesn’t just mean the force they apply to you, but the force you apply to them.) I will point out that only beginners see offence and defence as different things. As you get better, you realize that force is force and stress is stress. Newton’s third law of motion tells us that there is no mechanical difference between attack and defence.  This means that you can look at affecting your relationship with your opponent in a way that lets you change the amount of force they can apply against you. 
  2. modify the amount of strain that is experienced by regulating the collective elastic modulus of the body and mind. You want to be able change how a push or a punch affects you. Does it bounce off? Does it get absorbed? Does it get deflected? 
  3. Improve and understand your plasticity. How much can you be hurt, thrown, punched, displaced and deformed without losing? How flexible is your body, your mind, your emotions, and your pain threshold?  How much are you willing to change your strategy, tactics, ego, and your definition of victory? Remember, retreat and surrender can both be strategic options, and tactical decisions. Ferengi Rule of Acquisition # 76: Every once in a while, declare peace. It confuses the hell out of your enemies.
  4. Improve and understand your elasticity. Remember, elasticity is not about being stretchable and pliable. Elasticity is your ability to withstand and recover from force. Diamond is more elastic than rubber, because diamond can experience more stress without permanently changing shape. Rubber can recover its shape after a little bit of force. But too much force will permanently change its shape…or shapes. 

Tai chi and other internal martial arts have developed some unique tools for approaching these elements. And I will talk about some of these in the videos I will be presenting in the next couple of weeks.